In October, a baby suffered severe burns at a Lauderhill day care while under the watch of a woman on felony probation who was working without a background check.
In Ocala, a young boy nearly died after being left in a sweltering van by a day-care employee whose lengthy theft record should have barred her from working at the center.
And in Lake County, an employee with a criminal record of beating her toddler son continued working at a day-care center for more than three years after she slipped through the state's screening process.
Florida law requires criminal-background checks for child-care employees — but allows them to begin work before screening is complete. Once the results are in, a process that can take months, people barred from working with children because of a criminal record can still qualify by obtaining an exemption finding that they have been rehabilitated.
The law, along with screening failures, has opened the door for rapists, pedophiles and even killers to work in child care, the Sun Sentinel found. And parents have no way of knowing whether felons are caring for their children.
"It's ridiculous to even think about it, and it's scary," said Karen Gievers, a Tallahassee lawyer and child advocate. "If you've got people involved in criminal acts with children, it's absolutely clear that information should be known before you put that person with children."
A statewide database of background screenings since 1985 shows at least 2,400 people already were employed in child care before checks turned up their criminal records. A Tampa man had this disturbing note in his screening record: "EVIL DUDE—RAPE+KIDNAP+SEX ASLT."
An additional 2,900 people with criminal pasts were cleared for day-care work through exemptions, although some had been found guilty of crimes including child abuse, kidnapping and murder.
"It's totally unacceptable. Obviously, this has become a huge loophole that needs to be closed," said state Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, vice chairwoman of the Senate's Children, Families and Elder Affairs committee. "From what you've found, we've allowed people who have committed child abuse or molested kids to be among our children."
George Sheldon, head of the state's Department of Children and Families, said these troubling problems require reforms.
"We've got to do a much better job than what we're currently doing," he said. "We have a serious responsibility to protect kids."
Hire first, check laterFlorida's flawed background-screening system grew out of a child-care scandal in the 1980s.
Frank Fuster of Miami was convicted of sexually abusing more than a dozen children at a day care in his home and is serving life in prison. Fuster's record for manslaughter and child molestation came to light only after the scandal broke.
Before that, Florida had no consistent background checks. A law passed in 1985 bars people with certain criminal records from "positions of trust" such as jobs in day care unless they obtain an exemption.
Under the law, employees undergo a statewide and national FBI criminal-record check that must begin within 10 days after they start working.
It can take as little as 24 hours to get results if fingerprints are submitted electronically. But as of last year, more than half of those screened for day-care jobs in Florida had their fingerprints inked on cards and sent by mail, a process that takes six weeks or longer.
"All this time these people are working," said Sandy Pillar, who tracks screenings at DCF. "We've had people working in child care who were pedophiles."
The lag time in processing background screenings can vary from one region of the state to another. In Central Florida, until about a year ago, DCF had about a two-month backlog on screening applicants — on top of the typical 45-day average for the process. That meant felons were routinely on the job for months before anyone even noticed.